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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Citizen Me: Some Things Are Just not Easy on the Psyche

These posts are supposed to be about why I want to become a citizen of the United Kingdom. The renovation work that we undertook is important to understand the path that led me to this decision. There was a time when I felt that the last place in the world I wanted to be was in the U.K. The stresses and the strains of the work were difficult enough, but the most difficult part of my life was that I felt so isolated. Not only was I doing without the normal things of modern life -- like central heating and a dishwasher, for example -- but I had had two children and the massive upheaval of a new life in a foreign country. And I had been separated from my family and my friends for several years.

The longer this separation went on the more vulnerable I felt. Often I didn't want to talk when I went out because I was constantly having to repeat myself. This still happens quite often -- I'll start to speak and the first thing people notice is that I have an accent. Instead of listening to what I'm saying they are listening to the accent and so I have to repeat myself. It doesn't happen so often now because I speak English on a regular basis --  instead of American! In the early days I would try very hard to remember the right English word for things -- but sometimes, especially if I was tired, I would forget and order 'fries' instead of  'chips' or ask where the 'elevator' was instead of the 'lift'.  The result? Blank stares!!! Now I am more apt to forget the right word when I visit the States and have to speak 'American'...

Then there were people that didn't mind letting me know that Americans were really inferior and/or to blame for all the world's ills and I was American so I was to blame... I can laugh about this stuff now -- but back then I took it all too much  to heart. I will give you a few examples...

The Man and I were attending a Ladies Night at RAF Woodvale where he was a member of the Mess. We were seated next to a couple we didn't know. As dinner progress we chatted with this couple -- who were very reserved and it turned out this woman was working in education somehow. She asked me if I were Canadian or American (standard) and about where in America I'd come from. At some point I told her that my father was an English teacher.

"Oh," she said in her 'hoitiest' and 'toitiest' voice "I am surprised. "It never occurred to me that America would have English teachers!" At that point, I wrote her off!!!

On another occasion, I very close personal friend, had just been to see the film Dances with Wolves. She'd dropped by briefly -- I think our boys had been playing together. All I can remember is that I was standing at the front door and she was telling me all about this movie and how fantastic it was and how terrible the native Americans had been treated. And then she looked at me and said, "Don't you feel guilty for how badly the American Indian was treated? You should!" I felt so personally attacked! I hasten to add that we are still very good friends and I did not hold a grudge -- but at the time I was very shocked and hurt.

Then there was politics! I got lots of teasing about that and I hadn't even voted for the man!!!

From 1980 until 1984 the only member of my family I saw was my brother, who visited me a couple of times for a weekend on his way home from business trips to Germany. In September 1984 after 4 years apart, my sister and her husband came for a two-week much needed visit. It was not until May 1985 that I was able to make my first visit 'home'.  I wept as we flew over Manhattan and then  there I was at Newark Airport with two little boys in hand. For the first and only time in my life a customs officer, a woman, saw me with my two little ones and lots of luggage. She walked over and spoke to me and then very kindly signed my customs declaration, led/helped us in the right direction.

At long last the three of us went through the doors and there they were, Mom and Dad waving like mad!  I was home and yet after five long years, in a strange land!
Home for my 40th with all the family!


26 comments:

  1. I can so empathize Broad...I had/have exactly the same problem only in reverse. I open my mouth and an Aussie accent seems to send American listeners into a state of blank deafness...usually resulting in my having to repeat everything already said. Now, if I get the blank stare, I'll usually say, 'wait, I'll say it your way..then bung on an American accent and repeat the sentence. That usually produces a laugh and all is well with the world. Smiles - A.

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  2. What a huge life change that was -- and I can just feel your relief and joy at the sight of your Mom and Dad! Separation from family can be difficult whatever the distance, but when you've been transplanted to a foreign land, the effect is multiplied. I'm so fascinated by your stories, Katherine, and am learning so much from you. It all gives me added insight into what life must feel like at times to my sister-in-law who was transplanted from Thailand to Los Angeles in 2007 barely speaking English. Now she's quite fluent, but I think she still misses her family on a daily basis. Fortunately, she and my brother have a home in Thailand, too, and go back at least twice a year. Still, when one has small children as you did -- and as she does -- it would be nice to have family near.

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    1. My experiences certainly helped me to bond very quickly with my Korean daughter-in-law when she first went to the States. Fortunately for me I was never again separated from my family for such a long time -- Since 1985 I have been back most years at least once. There is something about going back and forth that first time that is very healing -- you realize that you are only a plane ride away.

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  3. You have my sympathies re language. I have what I think is a mild South African accent, but people do not seem to understand me half the time. They also seem to think that I come from Australia - there is no comparison!! It is also a big problem with learning French because the accent of course is to the fore yet again. My one French neighbour who speaks a little English (he learnt in America!) says my English is terrible LOL. Diane

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    1. That's rich! A French neighbour saying your English is terrible -- LOL! I must confess to not being always able to tell the difference between South African, Australian and New Zealand! I can hear the difference when listening ensemble but not always separately. When I first came to England I could not differentiate between the different regional accents either -- It's taken 30 years to get pretty good at it -- sometimes better than The Man!

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  4. The 1st time we went over to the US together Niall remarked that I now 'made more sense to him' as he'd never seen me in a US context before.

    Even after all this time and a 'mid-atlantic--not quite UK/ not quite American accent' I still have a double vocab and occasionally still pronounce words like tomato and garage in the US-ese when speaking UK-ese.

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    1. That's interesting -- since I met my husband in the U.S. he kind of knew what he was getting! What was interesting to me was how he changed in a U.S. setting to a U.K. setting. (Sounds like something for a future post!!)

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  5. I imagine that folks like me from the Northwest have an accent, too. I had a bad lisp when I was a kid so I can sympathize with what you went through, Thort of....

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    1. We lived in Olympia in 2008 and I felt very at home with the accent there. Not dissimilar from my Connecticut River Valley accent.

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  6. Coming to live in the UK is not easy for anyone. The Brits are convinced of their natural superiority over simply anybody else in the world and only when you accept that, will they accept you.

    I am frequently accused of "not having an accent" as if that were a crime. Like I'm getting in under the radar or by false pretences.

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    1. Your comment happens to be very timely! Last night there was a program on television about the Brits and their natural superiority ... My husband commented, in his superior British way, that that was rubbish! I said that of course it was true. To which he replied, "It. Is. Not.! I just laughed and said, 'Of course it is!!!' Now back in the days of this post, I took it all much more seriously than I do now -- now I just accept it (most of the time) and smile ;-) I suspect that being in the north of England helps...

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  7. I can relate to the "accent" part, to feeling like an alien when you returned to your homeland, for feeling responsible for a whole country's politics or history.

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    1. Do you still have an accent, Rosaria? People are often surprised that when they learn how long I've been here I still sound like an American. Interestingly people have always been complimentary about how I sound...

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  8. This thread with numerous examples of judgement passed just on the basis of accent is very sad. For you Broad it was the distance from your family which probably enhanced your sense of isolation.
    I found that when I first moved to England, from Wales, that I needed to tone down my Welsh accent. Some people would repeat, like a parrot, the way that I pronounced certain words. The cultural differences were fewer.
    Just remember that song "I am what I am"

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    1. Yes, Gaynor, you are quite correct -- it was the distance and the time. Once I'd gone and come back I was able to not be the basket case I had become.

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  9. It must have been so hard for you. I feel I should apologise on the awful Brits' behalf !!!! I lived in the mid west, but only for just over a year (1984 /5) and whilst most people were interested or even fascinated by my accent in a positive way, I remember my boss always referring to me as the one with the stupid accent. He never saw me as anything else, and I hated him for it. I do find that when I go back to visit ( often because of the great friends I made), I slip back into my mid atlantic version of American, using sidewalk, trash, diaper, faucet, gotten,etc etc. It makes my husband laugh....but I dont get asked to translate from English into American as often as he does. J.

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    1. Well, I had a lot on my plate, so I became super sensitive about 'being different'. Now that I am part of the 'elderly brigade' I find that life is just too short to carry around unnecessary hurts and woes. And of course a lot of the issues that were facing me then are not longer part of the problem.

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  10. Hello Katherine:
    Your account of your quest for citizenship is a fascinating read and it raises so many issues of what it is really like to be a foreigner in another country. Well, they say that such experiences may one stronger if they do not serve to kill one in the process, we are sure that you must have had many, many dark days when you really did question whether you would or should pursue the citizenship idea.

    One cannot excuse the rudeness and sheer hostility that you have unfortunately encountered. But, we believe that this is the result of prejudice and, sadly, the world is still far from accepting the common humanity of man.

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    1. Unfortunately, I did not realize until the mid-90's that it was possible to have dual nationality. Perhaps if I had known earlier that I could do this, it would have made for a happier me.

      I think because I was feeling so low so much of the time meant that I tended to focus on the negativity too much. Certainly I had many happy experiences with the new people I was meeting -- but when your not feeling very happy with life in general it's easy to see only the negative. I am glad I stuck it out!

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  11. Broad, I'm sorry you had such unhappy experiences at times. I think it's a symptom of intense tribalism, not to say parochialism. Class-conscious Britain was very bad for this when I was young, with people judged and pigeonholed as soon as they uttered their first syllables. I was so insecure and self-conscious when I first went up to Oxford in the mid-60s that I immediately set to work to get rid of my Lancashire accent. Things are better nowadays, but not perfect.

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    1. So did you get rid of your Lancashire accent? And now, can you have a Welsh and a Scottish and a Lancashire as and when you need it?

      I think all countries have the problem of tribalism and parochialism -- it's very interesting to discover how they differ. For example, the number of 'Irish' jokes here I'd already heard in the States as 'Polish' jokes.

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    2. Basically yes, Broad, and I now have a fairly standard accent, though people can hear traces of Lancashire and welsh in it, or so they say. :-) I certainly can't switch accents on and off like some people - no ear for them at all.

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  12. I ached reading this. Since joining the blogging world six years ago, I've had my share of "America is the source of the world's problems." Now, granted, it may be true (snark, snark), but I do not concur with my government, nor am I my government. Anyway. . .

    We lived in Istanbul 3 years, and I never stopped feeling like a foreigner, being looked up and down. Fortunately, at that time, they loved Americans, and so I didn't suffer an inferiority complex, just a "foreigner" complex. Oh, and they did let me know when my Turkish stunk.

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    1. It is a very disconcerting feeling to feel 'foreign'. It does, however, help us to understand the predicament of the many immigrants who come to the U.S. looking for a new life. Not to mention a greater understanding our our own ancestors, who I am sure found it even more difficult. It is bewildering to me how much hateful rhetoric there is in the United States towards those who want no more than their own history suggests.

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  13. Dear Broad,
    I read the exchange between you and Perpetua. The idea of parochialism and tribalism makes so much sense in the light of the stories you told. Somehow we often define ourselves in terms of what we're not. We aren't "those people." We aren't like "them." I think we often search out differences so as to find ourselves superior. If only we'd learn to search out those that make us one with others. It's a long learning process for sure. Peace.

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    1. It's a very long learning process, Dee and one that is very rewarding to explore...

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Receiving comments is a joy and I thank you all for taking the trouble and showing your interest. Makes me feel all gooey and stuff!